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Five things to watch when Falcons host rival Saints in Week 1

Will Drake London make his Falcons debut? How will Marcus Mariota change the Falcons offense? Intensity of the rivalry, and more. 

Congrats everyone! We made it. The regular season is upon us, and shall I say: Thank God.

We're officially through talking season so the time is nigh to see some real, regular season football. But let's be honest: We still have so many questions about this 2022 Falcons team, and perhaps that's a good thing? Perhaps the Saints feel the same.


More than any other time throughout the last decade, the Falcons and Saints rivalry looks different. There's no Matt Ryan. There's no Drew Brees. There's no Julio Jones. There's no Sean Payton.

Instead, Arthur Smith and Dennis Allen face off. The first two draft picks of the 2015 NFL Draft (Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota) are looking for redemption in their careers, and they'll try to do so as the starting quarterbacks on Sunday. This all begins when the Saints travel to Atlanta to face the Falcons at home. So, with so many storylines, what are we watching when kickoff comes? Let's take a look at five.

1. Will Drake London make his Falcons debut?

You don't have to tell me, I already know this is the No. 1 question you have entering into Sunday. London injured his knee in the very first preseason game and we haven't seen him since. Well, that's not completely true. We have seen him at practice all week. He's been active, but limited.

Smith said on Friday that London (and Darren Hall) had a "solid week" of practice. However, the coaching staff will make a final decision on their game day status on Saturday. London and Hall's game designation on Friday was "questionable."

"We'll be smart with both of them," Smith said on Friday. "We'll assess, and make a call (Saturday)."

Well, it's Saturday, but we'll likely know London's official status on Sunday when inactives are released. Be on the lookout for that announcement 90 minutes before kickoff.

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Drake London #5 during practice in Atlanta, Georgia, on Wednesday, September 7, 2022. (Photo by Shanna Lockwood/Atlanta Falcons)

2. The new offensive wrinkle that is Marcus Mariota in the pocket

We saw a glimpse of what Mariota could be in this Falcons offense in the first two preseason games. It was truly only a glimpse, though. We haven't seen him operate the offense through four quarters and in certain situations (like end of game, or end of half - though the Falcons did try to mimic that pace for him in his last drive versus the Jets).

What we have seen is the physicality of which he runs.

Mariota's mobility is something the Falcons haven't had at the quarterback position in a long time. And that's nothing against Matt Ryan, either. We all know that's not the type of quarterback Ryan is. Mariota is a completely different prototype with completely different skill sets and strengths. This means the offense will look very different with Mariota under center in comparison to what it looked like with Ryan.

The new QB1 in Atlanta adds a new wrinkle to the offense when it comes to what Smith can do as a play caller. I'm also willing to go on the record that the Falcons offensive line could look better with a more mobile quarterback behind them. We have to see this in action first, though. The good news is we'll get our first taste on Sunday.

3. Establishing the run early

Let's be honest, we didn't see much of Cordarrelle Patterson or Damien Williams running the ball at all this preseason. As we shouldn't. I would have much rather seen Tyler Allgeier and Caleb Huntley. But now I do have questions about the Falcons run game and how it'll operate.

Who's your work horse? What does the carry load look like for each guy? What packages work best for each individual? How does having Mariota under center change the way defenses attacks the Falcons run game? Does Patterson have a pitch count? How much will we see Allgeier early in his rookie year? And it goes without saying that the final question is: How productive can this run game be?

The Saints defensive front is - arguably - one of the best and most talented in the league. How the Falcons match up in the run against them will be something to watch, particularly early on Sunday when both teams are still trying to figure each other out. There are a ton of offshoots from this one storyline, so I'll stop here... for now.

Atlanta Falcons running back Damien Williams #6 during practice in Atlanta, Georgia, on Wednesday, September 7, 2022. (Photo by Shanna Lockwood/Atlanta Falcons)

4. Matching up with the Saints skill players

It goes without saying that the Falcons secondary is one of the strongest and most skilled position groups on the 2022 roster. When it comes to who they're matching up against on Sunday, though? They'll have quite the first test.

You're talking Michael Thomas, Taysom Hill, Jarvis Landry, Alvin Kamara and Chris Olave. With Winston running the show at quarterback, the Saints have more than enough offensive talent to move the ball downfield, even without Payton calling plays on the sideline. With so many weapons, the Falcons have to at least make it hard on Winston to get the ball in their hands.

I'm putting quite a bit of pressure on the Falcons defensive front to help out the secondary in this regard. The Falcons struggled at times against mobile quarterbacks in 2021. They leaked out of the pocket too much. If the defensive line can contain Winston, I feel relatively confident in saying the secondary can make it difficult for him finding open targets. Maybe I eat my words, but this is where I'm gonna stake my claim right now.

5. Evaluating the intensity of the rivalry as it begins a new chapter

My favorite quote of the week leading up to this game actually came from Smith on Wednesday. He was asked about the rivalry and what it means now that these two NFC South teams are heading in new directions. As I wrote in the lede, this rivalry looks different. But Smith hopes it doesn't feel different.

"We expect ... this rivalry in this next chapter to be just as intense," Smith said, "if not more so."

The Falcons/Saints rivalry is already one of the most heated in all of professional football. If it gets more intense? Honestly, you wouldn't hear a complaint from me.

We take a look at the top snaps from this week's practice as we prepare to take on the Saints, presented by Gatorade.


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